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Trump Razed the Resettlement Infrastructure That Afghan Refugees Now Need

Simply admitting refugees isn’t enough — Biden must restore and expand resettlement programs shuttered under Trump.

Refugees from Afghanistan wait to board a bus after arriving and being processed at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, on August 23, 2021.

President Joe Biden’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan has fueled a significant slide in his approval ratings in polls, with barely 4 in 10 respondents viewing the president favorably. The Afghan debacle has been defined in the public eye both by the chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport and by cascading intelligence failures. Over 20 years, the country spent untold billions of dollars on intelligence gathering in Afghanistan, and yet at the most crucial of moments, the powers-that-be still couldn’t quite get their heads around how corrupt and hollowed-out the Afghan government under Ashraf Ghani was. They didn’t realize how it was failing to pay or feed its soldiers, and how its leaders were, apparently, just waiting for an opportunity to head off into gilded exile with the fruits of their corruption sustaining them. Yet, amid all the horrors of the past month, the airlift of more than 100,000 Afghans stands out as at least a partial corrective.

Many Americans from across much of the political spectrum have rallied to help the tens of thousands of Afghans who have been, and will be, arriving in the U.S. in the wake of the Taliban takeover. In both blue and red counties, huge numbers of volunteers are pouring time and resources into assisting these individuals who are, in many instances, arriving in their new homes with no money and almost no possessions. Now, the Biden administration is asking Congress for $6.5 billion in emergency funds to help resettle the Afghan refugees.

And yet, the Trumpist echo chamber has been pushing more virulent anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric in recent days, and consequently, GOP support for refugee resettlement has eroded. The odious Fox News demagogue Tucker Carlson decided to use the human tragedy of mass displacement to his political advantage, railing against refugees he accused of invading the U.S., and warning they would dilute and pollute American culture. “The idea that you can move people from one completely different country — with a completely different culture and language and religion and history on the other side of the globe — into our country in large numbers, and everything will be just fine, is insane, Carlson told his audience in mid-August. Laura Ingraham told her viewers that the refugees were “unvetted” and thus posed a mortal threat to the U.S.

Donald Trump himself has waffled on the issue at one moment this past month seeming to endorse a resettlement program for Afghans who had helped the U.S. over the two decade-long war, at other moments riffing about unvetted refugees and telling his audience that he would always put “America First.” Meanwhile, his fanatical henchman, Stephen Miller, who was the chief architect behind the web of anti-immigrant regulations and actions that defined the Trump presidency, was quick to accuse those supporting significant levels of refugee resettlement in the U.S. of having a “political” agenda. He has also urged countries bordering Afghanistan to accept all Afghan refugees, while suggesting that the U.S. should massively restrict entry. Presumably, Miller fears that a “political agenda” by pro-refugee advocates is part of some nefarious plot to flood the electorate in coming years with newly minted refugees who will become citizens, then turn around and tilt the political scales against nativist Republicans.

Of course, the use of a “political agenda” around immigration was actually perfected during the Trump years, when the full and mighty force of the U.S. government was turned against one vulnerable immigrant group after another.

When it came to refugees, Trump’s team spared no effort to make an already oppressive system infinitely worse. The efforts to ban migrants from many Muslim-majority countries, which began within days of Trump’s taking office, locked out most refugees from Syria and Yemen, despite both of those countries being afflicted by brutal civil wars. The overall refugee cap was lowered from 110,000 per year to 15,000 during the Trump years. Even that didn’t tell the full horror of the story — as during the last two years of the Trump presidency, that cap was never met and in reality, far fewer refugees were admitted.

As the refugee cap was lowered, the dollars that flowed to the country’s nine major refugee resettlement agencies were eviscerated, resulting in offices being shuttered and expert resettlement workers laid off around the U.S. By mid-2019, more than 50 resettlement offices had closed and another 41 had suspended operations.

It took decades to build the U.S.’s refugee resettlement infrastructure, but it took barely four years for Trump and his acolytes to shred it.

Today, the resettlement infrastructure faces a huge challenge: how to provide services and resources to incoming Afghan refugees during a period in which many resettlement experts have lost their jobs and had to shut down their offices.

Biden’s request for billions of dollars in targeted assistance to help refugees will go a long way, but the bigger challenge remains: how can resettlement offices that have been shuttered reopen and rehire all their experts at speed? Furthermore, how can this infrastructure be reinvigorated not just to deal with the current crisis, but as part of a long-term strategy to reopen the country to refugees once again? Even in more immigrant-welcoming times than these, U.S. refugee resettlement policies were still profoundly shaped by both geopolitics and racist sentiment. Today, Biden’s challenge is not just to resurrect the pre-Trumpian refugee settlement system, but also to reimagine it and enlarge it to meet the growing needs of a 21st century riven by war and environmental displacement.

Five years ago, I reported a story for Sacramento Magazine on local efforts that went into resettling Afghans in Sacramento and its environs. Many of the people being resettled had Special Immigrant Visas — visas reserved for those who had helped Americans during the conflict in some way, such as translation skills or military assistance. Others were refugees from Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere. I followed one family from the time they exited the airplane to their placement in a new apartment. Along the way, they needed assistance navigating everything from enrollment in health care programs to finding nearby supermarkets. Many of the refugees needed classes in English as a second language (ESL), children needed to be enrolled in schools and adults needed help lining up paid employment. This required a strong collaborative effort from local volunteers and also from the professional staff at the resettlement agencies.

What will the experience of this current wave of Afghan refugees be like? Given the damage done to refugee resettlement agencies since Trump’s election in 2016, who will help them navigate complex bureaucracies today? Who will be there if they need help filling in paperwork or finding an affordable apartment to rent? Who will be there to provide translation services, or to find suitable jobs for the new arrivals?

It’s not enough to just admit refugees during an acute crisis when the eyes of the world are upon the U.S. If proper services are to be provided for admitted refugees, it is vital to pour adequate resources into funding the country’s once-robust network of refugee resettlement agencies. And since funding for these agencies is tied to the number of refugees admitted each year under the annual presidential finding on the issue, the best way to get more funds flowing is for the president to raise the refugee admissions cap and then actually ensure that the full number of permitted refugees make it into the U.S.

In April, Biden attracted political heat for backtracking on a campaign promise to raise the refugee cap from 15,000 up to 62,500. A month later, facing a torrent of criticism from progressives, the president back-pedaled again and announced that the cap would, indeed, increase to 62,500. Yet the reality on the ground doesn’t meet this promise: So far this year, the refugee cap has been raised to 62,500. Yet, excluding the recent Afghan arrivals, only a small fraction of those 62,500 have actually been admitted into the country. Until those numbers improve significantly, the U.S. won’t be able to fully restore the resettlement programs so wantonly vandalized during Trump’s reign of horrors — let alone improve upon them.

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